INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The first time film preservationist Eric Grayson opened up the steel canister in the back room of Milan High School in 2015 his sense of smell told him the buzzer was near for rare movie copies of the 1954 Indiana High School Basketball Championship games.
“What I smelled was extreme vinegar and it smells like a rancid salad and the films were getting wavy because they had shrunk so much they were not in good shape,” said Grayson. “These are original prints off the original negative which no longer survives of the two Milan games.”
The films recorded the exploits and schoolboy heroics of some farm kids from southeastern Indiana who overcame big city giants to win in David-versus-Goliath style the state basketball title 64 years ago in what would forever be known as the “Milan Miracle.”
And, thanks to Grayson’s painstaking labor, generations of Hoosiers will always be able to relive the thrill of Bobby Plump’s final shot for centuries to come.
“I do think it really shows the importance of basketball to this state and the roles that archivists and collectors can play to bring that back to the inhabitants of Indiana,” said Indiana University Film Archivist Eric Uhrich, “so it’s going to be a resource so that in decades and centuries to come when people want to come back and look at it, it will be here.”
“Here” will be IU’s climate controlled film vault, home to more than 100,000 movies, videotapes and audio recordings in which “The Milan Miracle” will automatically vault to the top of the must-see list.
“It’s helpful to have enthusiasts and individuals who find these important pieces of history and work on their own to save it,” said Uhrich.
When Grayson took on the Milan ’54 project, he estimated it would take 80-100 hours of labor to save the film, convert it to digital, transfer it to Mylar stock and deliver it back to IU whose student cameramen shot the original game footage more than six decades ago.
Grayson, it would seem, like the Milan Indians team going into the finals at Butler University Fieldhouse, was a tad optimistic.
“It turned out the film was in much worse shape,” he said of the “spider-webbing effect” that had deteriorated the stock of one of the games, “so I had to invent another technique to take those out as much as we could in order to recover that picture.”
Grayson has restored classic and little known Hollywood movies from the 1920s.
“This one actually had a lot more deterioration in it than other films that I’ve had,” he said.
Grayson said a collaborator, a New York City film lab, needed to buy special equipment to process the 1954 movie stock to transfer the images to a hard drive and then back onto film.
A $13,000 grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation paid to have the images placed on archival film, but not for the experts to do the work.
“I budgeted this for about eight thousand dollars for me and I guessed that I made about as much money as I would make at Burger King,” said Grayson who launched a Kickstart campaign to solicit funds from donors. “All I had to do was send them a copy of “Hoosiers” and I sent them a copy of some of the newspaper things and they got it, they understood what was going on.”
It was the longshot movie, filmed on location in 1986, that turned the kids from rural Indiana into cinematic legends who epitomized the ultimate underdog triumph success story.
“It’s really amazing how the Milan thing has just continued to get better,” said Roger Schroeder who played on that ‘54 team and attended the restoration premiere at the I-U cinema on the Bloomington campus. “It’s very good, especially on the big screen like this.”
Schroeder and his teammates had known they were part of something special back in the day but didn’t realize the chord their triumph struck until “Hoosiers” stunned Hollywood and became an underdog fan favorite.
“I’m just truly amazed how it has grown. I mean, it’s like a fairy tale,” he said. “A lot of things changed for me because of Milan so I’m happy for that.”
For decades, basketball fans have watched a faded YouTube version of the Milan-Muncie Central championship game that originated from a poorly recorded videotape.
“What you’re seeing is a copy of a copy of a copy,” said Grayson whose 2018 version contains sharper images and a synchronized radio play-by-play call. “First of all you can see a lot more of the crowd because it’s cropped so terribly, so you see a lot more of the crowd, you see a lot more of the background, you can almost see the players’ faces. You can see individuals in the background.
“There are so many things you get out of it just by watching about how these guys just played their guts out and how they were so careful about doing things,” said the film historian who still marvels at Bobby Plump’s gutsy play in the semi-final game against Terre Haute Gertsmeyer that vaulted the Indians into the final game, “and then a few hours later he had to go play the championship game so, I mean, this guy is probably bruised and banged up from the last game because they were all over him and then he made that last shot in the final.”
And with those ghostly images brought back to life, the Milan ’54 heroics will literally last at least until the final buzzer on the 2418 Indiana Boys State Championship.
“The Milan Miracle” is available on amazon and will be shown along with the movie “Hoosiers” at the Indiana Museum of Art in March.
Eric Grayson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.